The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is based on the life of the 19th century Persian poet, theologian, radical thinker, and staunch advocate for women’s rights, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn. The novel pays homage to Qurratu’l-Ayn for challenging orthodox interpretations of Islam and for her insistence on a woman’s right to literacy. Qurratu’l-Ayn, referred to throughout the novel as the poetess of Qazvin, is a courageous, brilliant, and stunningly beautiful woman who refuses to compromise her principles or submit to the role of a subordinate female as dictated by her patriarchal culture.
Grounding her advocacy of women’s rights on Islamic texts, the poetess of Qazvin debates the clerics and mullahs sent to interrogate her, outsmarting them at every turn. She incurs the wrath of her husband because of her superior intelligence. She challenges the cultural precepts designed to restrict a woman’s intellectual development by citing Islamic religious texts, which impose no such restrictions on women. In short, the poetess of Qazvin defies cultural norms and threatens the status quo by being a woman who is not only literate but is also educated, intelligent, articulate, outspoken, fearless, and a religious scholar.
The men responsible for her incarceration and brutal murder are threatened by her intelligence and ability to unmask their motives and behaviors. In times of famine, public executions, assassinations, torture, and the Shah’s callous indifference to the suffering of his people, the all-consuming focus of those in power is what to do with a woman who reads and who teaches other women to read to provide them with tools to think for themselves.
Nakhjavani is to be credited for recognizing that opposition to pioneers frequently comes from the very people they are trying to elevate. The Shah’s mother is particularly virulent in her opposition to the poetess of Qazvin because she understands a literate female with the unmitigated gall to think for herself poses a serious threat to the status quo. The younger sister who ultimately betrays the poetess is fueled by vindictive jealousy.
The novel is in four parts: The Book of the Mother (the Shah’s mother); The Book of the Wife (the mayor’s wife); The Book of the Sister (the Shah’s sister); and The Book of the Daughter (the poetess of Qazvin). Nakhjavani employs interesting techniques in telling the story. None of the characters are named. Instead, they are identified by their roles, perhaps to suggest their universality. The non-linear narrative shifts backwards and forwards in time. The movement is spiral, circling back to the same event but moving upward as it does so with the addition of details, layers of meaning, and differing perspectives.
Nakhjavani sustains the readers’ attention with her storytelling technique and beautifully crafted sentences. Her words create patterns by weaving in and out through shifting time sequences. With irony and humor, the narrative voice exposes the hypocrisies, contradictions, willful ignorance, greed, and sheer brutality of those persecuting the heroine.
This is a novel about the power of literacy to subvert authority by undermining systemic efforts to oppress a people. It is about who has control over whom. Political events of the past and present are replete with examples of oppressive regimes exerting power over others by demonizing, persecuting, ridiculing and eradicating the opposition; engaging in censorship; curbing debate; stifling freedom of expression; seeking scapegoats for political unrest; and curtailing the education and movement of women. Nakhjavani’s novel about the struggles facing a pioneering advocate for women’s rights in 19th Century Persia is as relevant today as it was then. Ultimately this novel is about the struggle for autonomy and self-determination.
An inspiring and compelling read. Highly recommended